CHRISTMAS 2018 : PART III
from Byzantine, to Bouguereau
"LATE RENAISSANCE c1500, to c1900"
Among the most famous of the Madonna and Child representations is
Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges, 1501-1504.
It is believed this work was originally intended for an altarpiece.
This was the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime,
being purchased by Giovanni and Alessandro Moscheroni (Mouscron) of Bruges.
Since the 16th century, the Madonna has twice left Bruges, both as as a result of war :
in 1794 to Paris after the French Revolutionary War; and at Christmastime during WWII,
to Germany, smuggled by German soldiers within mattresses.
After a year's relentless search, it was found in an Austrian salt mine,
thence returned to Bruges - by dedicated members of "The Monuments Men".
"If these things are lost or broken or destroyed,
we lose a valuable part of our knowledge about our forefathers.
No age lives entirely alone; every civilisation is formed not merely by its own achievements
but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed,
we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it."
- Robert M. Edsel, author, "The Monuments Men"
The Late Renaissance is revered for its development in arts and sciences.
Certainly, some of history's most esteemed painters lived and worked during this period :
Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein, and Botticelli, to name just a few.
In 17th century, Rembrandt moved painting into the "Golden Age", and Baroque painting.
The skills and messages of these artists remain bewildering.
Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526-1527, Basel
Holbein, the extraordinary painter of detail, depicts the Madonna,
now 'crowned', standing, holding the Christ Child, and cloaked in black'.
(Since 2012, at Johanniterhalle, Schwäbisch Hall, German)
The Madonna is also 'enthroned by the escallop shell' rather than the chair.
The shell itself becomes Her 'radiant halo'.
(She is sided by Basel Bürgermeister Jakob Meyer zum Hasen,
who actively opposed the 'Protestant Reformation',
his first wife, who had died earlier, his current wife, and his daughter).
This painting is the 'antithesis' of Holbein's later
"Portrait of Henry VIII"*,
commissioned to depict 'power and aggressive masculinity'.
(Walter Art Gallery, Liverpool, England)
The shell, by contrast, represented 'femininity, the womb and divine space'.
Also encasing Michelangelo's "Madonna of Bruges",
the shell was a symbol of the 'new Venus' (Mary),
now empowered and supported from 'above' (spiritual)
rather than from 'below (nature),
as in Botticelli's "Birth of Venus".**
(Ufizzi Gallery, Florence, Italy)
The 'escallop shell motif' appears throughout the arts and in almost every culture.
And actually, the shell is said to have been the 'first spoon'!
Its use continues with great favor, and with a variety of applications...and 'meanings'!
Here are but a few interpretative "shell" examples from our collection :
And of course, the "shell decoration" on one of the world's favorite table silver patterns :
William Eaton, 1826-7, Very Heavy Gauge
Do notice as well that both the Madonna and Henry VIII
are depicted standing atop an intricately painted Oriental rug - then considered to embody
spiritual connotations - i.e. a relationship between heaven and earth :
Persia c 1900
Woven with horizontal alternating wide bands of 'cruciform' calyx medallions,
and narrow bands of flower calyxes (of 'crab form').
Even today, such rugs with hexagonal and cruciform motifs are often known as "Holbein rugs".
(A few interesting details about the 'cruciform' medallions appear
in the our first "2018 Christmas Part I" catalog)
In Old Italian, the name 'Ma Donna' meant 'My Lady'.
It was first attested in 1552 and its meaning was primarily 'woman' (Italian).
Its use in the sense of the Virgin Mary was attested much later, in 1844.
As well, Notre Dame means 'Our lady'.
Virgin and Child with the Milk Soup
Gerard David, c1515, Netherlandish, Oil on Oak Panel
David's Madonna, with thin 'ethereal veiling' rather than 'halo' or 'crown',
feeds the Christ Child with a wooden spoon in a humble setting
with a 'distant landscape' through the open window
(Aurora Trust, New York, NY, USA)
The Christ Child holds a branch of cherries,
the 'red sweet cherry' representing the 'Fruit of Paradise'.
Gerard David was the last of the true 'Netherlandish' painters,
whose goal it was to convey the experience of everyday life -
sometimes with astonishing detail.
These painters often included 'distant backgrounds', as the above window depicts.
Sweet cherry trees, indigenous to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa,
are also known as 'prunus' - that name historically permeating both Eastern and Western arts.
Below is a c1690 Japanese porcelain tankard, meticulously painted in Holland c1700,
with two partridge beneath both blooming and bearing 'prunus'.
Painted with a 12th century Chinese design known as 'Quail and Millet',
later interpreted by Europeans as 'Two Quail', and 'Partridge'.
'The partridge' in Christian symbolism often refers to the 'Church', and 'Truth'.
'Grain' is used to suggest the 'human nature of Christ'.
Also note in David's painting, the flower-filled Ming blue & white jar with loop handle.
At this time, blue & white Chinese porcelain was being imported into Europe
from far-away mysterious lands - and imbued with further mysterious properties.
China , c1690, the Mounts 19th C., Dutch
A similar loop handled blue & white vessel, but 170 years later,
also featuring a lady and male child.
The lady - 'Long Eliza' - appears in alternating panels with vases of flowers.
On the cover appears a long-sleeved 'Dancing Boy' -'Zotje'.
The spoon-fed meal is a variation of the Virgin nursing the Child,
a metaphor of believers being nourished by the mother Church and by Christ.
Above is a c1620 wooden spoon we sold last year,
of the same form as the"Milk Spoon" in David's painting.
This spoon is either Swiss or German in origin, dating about 100 years later than David's painting.
The terminal apostle with nimbus (halo) is St. Paul.
Until c1700, a spoon was a very personal belonging,
most being given a single spoon at birth, which - even if nobility -
was carried on the person when traveling.
Each spoon remains a very personal diary of its owner.
(Click each spoon image or title for linked page)
Virgin with Child and the Cat
Rembrandt van Rijn, Leiden / Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1654 :
In the 1600s, depictions of the Madonna and Child were
portrayed in a far more domestic and intimate nature.
No one could execute this better than Rembrandt,
with his energetic line and great passion for observation.
This image may seem rather unimposing; however is extremely rich in story-telling.
Note first that the Madonna's placement has moved from the 'elevated'
(as the Holbein above) to a lower and more 'earthly' humanistic nature.
(Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam)
As well, Rembrandt's Madonna is no longer 'enthroned' by either chair or shell.
A medieval Savonarola chair of enthronement rests empty, 'behind' Her.
Neither is She 'crowned' or with golden 'halo' - but 'fine radiating lines' only.
She is seated on the floor in quite humble dress and surroundings, caressing Her Child.
A small open chest is beside Her.
A 'cat' plays with Her dress hem.
And a 'snake' slithers away from beneath Her feet - defeated.
Joseph looks in from the window behind.
It's a scene that might occur in any home (with hopeful exception of the snake).
The 'cat' is a most interesting symbol, having divergent - even opposite - meanings.
The cat alludes to the 'Church' and' Truth' -- as well as 'deceit'.
It also represents the 'night', the 'Limitless', and the 'yet Uncreated'.
In Durer's engraving "Adam and Eve", a cat appears at Eve's heel -
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City )
Cats are occasionally found in medieval "Assumption" paintings.
Although sacred to the Eqyptians and Orientals,
they do not appear (in Western art) with their current sentimentality until the 19th century.
The 'snake' as well harks back to the Garden of Eden.
Like the cat, the snake symbolizes both 'evil' and 'seduction',
as well as 'healing' - recall the two serpents of the physician's staff.
'Mary' - also named the 'New Eve' - was the 'conqueror of dragons',
and shown crushing a snake underfoot.
showing the Goddess Diana (a Greek predecessor of Madonna)
with a 'radiant halo', the allusion to the halo being preferable
after the mid-16th century Council of Trent.
The 'oval windowpane' in Rembrandt's engraving (above) provides the completion of the allusion.
Third Quarter 18th Century, Crowned A.P Thrice (Antoine II Parrel)
with folded rim and half fluted sides, the rim scratch engraved I . GREGOIRE (Gregory),
having a twisted double-headed snake handle -
appearing on many French tastevins, apparently as a nod to the Greek god of wine, Dionysus
(just in case you have wondered)!
As well, it seems snakes benefit vineyards by keeping down destructive rodents.
The small '6- board' chest (possibly a child's chest) is carved with
two fleur de lis (Purity) quatrefoils, each appearing as a 'saltire' (St. Andrews Cross),
siding a lockplate and frilly leafed palmette,
the symbolism of the palm including triumph over sin and death.
(The saffron colored silk is early 19th century Italian).
The boarded chest, along with the paneled coffer,
were the all-important 'storage furniture' of the day.
This small chest is just a few years earlier than the chest in Rembrandt's 1654 engraving.
During the 17th & 18th centuries religious paintings began
to assume - by request of the Church - a more complex nature :
extensive scenes, often with high emotion and drama,
swirling movement and cherubs, color, and strong chiaroscuro -
'all intended to overwhelm the worshipper' with awe.
And with curves on steroids, they did - and still do.
However the earlier arresting intimacy and reverence seems lost to the new grandeur -
as the objectives were more akin to Holbein's "Portrait of Henry VIII"
(as mentioned above).*
(Santa Maria del Suffragio, Rome)
Virgin and Child with Angels and Saints
Felice Torelli, Completed c1700
Oil on Canvas (Late Baroque)
employing the new bold undulating C- and S-scrolls
now filled with overwhelming power and energy;
depicting the Madonna giving the rosary to St Dominic.
The Dominican monk to the left is the late Pope Pius V.
These strong rhythms also transferred to the more secular
'Cabinetmaking' & 'Decorative Arts' :
Whilst the "devotional paintings" might have lost a certain something to excessive curves,
these same curves transformed the 18th century into a "golden age" for cabinetmaking.
The C- and S- curves gave a previously unequalled grace, elegance,
and sculptural quality to furniture and the decorative arts -
in particular to the Late Baroque period, c1700-1740.
'Late Baroque' is by far my favorite period for British furniture and accessories,
particularly regarding chairs and chests :
England, c1720, Original Surface
Note the vast difference between this form, and the earlier medieval style
folding Savonarola chair depicted in the Rembrandt's "Virgin with Child & the Cat".
Graceful undulating C- and S-scrolls now dominate the crestrail and splat.
The shapely 'cabriole legs', appearing British furniture only c1700,
are also carved with C-scroll returns,
and arched and acanthus carved knees